If this is the season MLS finally breaks through and ends Mexican teams' dominance in the CONCACAF Champions League, Liga MX will still have nine titles to point to should any question its regional dominance.
Chivas and America, who Tuesday will play the second legs of semifinal series against MLS teams that hang in the balance, know better than anyone that you can't simply point to history to save face. They're Mexico's most successful clubs historically. Both have 12 league titles to their names. It's not enough. Fans demand the title every season, especially with their rival able to claim bragging rights should they lift another league trophy.
Is the pressure on? America manager Miguel Herrera and Chivas manager Matias Almeyda will say the pressure is always on at their clubs. Each has certainly felt heat far hotter than what they'll experience should Chivas let their 1-0 advantage slip at Red Bull Arena or America be unable to overcome the 3-1 deficit it's up against heading into its home leg.
Yet there's a fair amount of pride Mexico takes in being the top league in the region, especially with all the noise MLS makes with its marketing, big player signings and the simple matter of proximity. Toronto FC dispatched the nouveau riche, beating Tigres in the quarterfinals in a match between the leagues' reigning champions. The Red Bulls took down noisy upstart Tijuana, an 11-year-old team that started its life off as a successful club and has stuck around in the last few years.
America and Chivas are on a different level. These teams, founded when soccer in Mexico was still amateur, have been flying the flag for Mexico for a century. America, in the old days, was one of the first Mexico City teams to field Mexican players and requested a limit on foreign players in the 1920s. To this day, Chivas signs only Mexicans. There is a deep love for the country baked into these clubs.
A loss to an MLS team in the CCL semifinal would be doubly embarrassing, then, letting down their own supporters but in some way the entire Mexican soccer family. MLS teams' rise has lead to a fair bit of hard feelings from the Mexican side, with Miguel Herrera using his post-match news conference in the first leg to accuse Toronto police of assaulting his players and alleging ahead of the second that referees can't fairly call his teams.
"I think there's a situation where we've had Mexican teams in the finals for many years and it's obvious that MLS, which has grown, wants to have teams there, but the errors have been against the Mexicans and that's how it's gone. It's not what they want, that's how it's happened," he said. "Officials have the pressure of calling games with Mexicans teams. It's not CONCACAF. We're part of a great confederation and we should respond for the FMF."
Herrera's support of the Mexican federation was more focused than Almeyda's desire that his all-Mexican team get to the final, then the Club World Cup to represent the country.
"We’re ready, we’ve got a great squad with very motivated players, players who have the desire to break through and to carry the Mexican flag the highest possible," he said in a news conference Monday. "In this sense, as a manager, they make me very calm and give me confidence."
He's not calm about the suspension of Jair Pereira, who was set to line up as one of three center-backs in a 5-3-2 setup but was suspended two matches for putting his hands around the neck of a Red Bulls player in the first leg. The center-back himself suggested CONCACAF is ready to have a MLS team representing it in the Club World Cup and hit back against him after Red Bulls players Aurelien Collin and Alex Muyl were suspended in the second leg.
That, of course, is ridiculous. But Pereira traveling while Chivas appeal his case is another sign that CCL is now of utmost importance to the clubs taking part. America will be without injured Jeremy Menez and Cecilio Dominguez but otherwise also is expected to put out its strongest team with Herrera clearly hoping to rile up his team ahead of an important midweek match. For years, that wasn't the case.
Mexico has dominated the competition, and one title for MLS won't change that. But neither Chivas nor America want to be remembered as the teams who let it happen, the ones who fell short against MLS opposition for the first time.